The European Commission launched a new industry alliance on Tuesday (30 September) aimed at strengthening the EU’s “strategic autonomy” on raw materials like rare earths, which are considered key for the bloc’s green and digital transitions.
“Access to resources is a strategic security question” for Europe’s green ambitions, says the declaration establishing the European Raw Materials Alliance.
“Demand for critical raw materials will only increase, especially given the ongoing transition to a green and digital economy,” said Maroš Šefčovič, the Commission vice president in charge of foresight, who launched the alliance on Tuesday (30 September).
The new industry-led group will be modelled on the European Battery Alliance, which brought together more than 200 companies, governments and research organisations around the manufacturing of batteries for the auto industry.
The alliance will aim to identify obstacles, and investment opportunities at all stages of the raw materials value chain – ranging from mining to processing and waste recovery – while trying to minimise the environmental and social impacts, the Commission said.
Its first mission will be to build “strategic autonomy for the rare earths and magnets value chain, before extending to other raw material areas,” according to the declaration establishing the European Raw Materials Alliance.
Europe ‘almost self-sufficiency’ on lithium by 2025
Europe currently relies heavily on imports from a small number of foreign countries, said Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal market commissioner. China, for instance, provides 98% of the EU’s supply of rare earth elements, while Turkey provides 98% of the EU’s supply of Borate, and South Africa supplies 71% of EU needs for platinum, Breton said.
“But there are also many of these materials present in Europe. And that’s the good news,” he added, citing cobalt, bauxite, beryllium, bismuth, gallium, germanium, indium, niobium and borate.
“There are for example considerable lithium resources in Europe,” which can be observed by the EU’s Copernicus constellation of satellites, Breton continued, saying: “We are positioning ourselves so that by 2025, we will be almost self-sufficient in lithium for batteries”.
An action plan on critical raw materials published earlier this month by the European Commission, mentions several times the need to achieve “strategic autonomy” on critical raw materials.
Still, Europe’s own mineral resources are insufficient to cover all industrial needs. “And that’s why we want to forge major partnerships with third countries such as Canada and Australia” as well as better integrating African countries in European value chains, Breton said.
“Because when we speak about ‘strategic autonomy’, or what is sometimes referred to as sovereignty or resilience, we are not talking about isolating ourselves from the world, but having choice, alternatives, and competition,” he explained, saying the goal was to avoid “unwanted dependencies, both economically and geopolitically”.
Finally, it won’t be sufficient to develop mining capabilities in Europe without also developing the processing and refining facilities too, Breton continued. “Many of these raw materials are recyclable. This is an industry with real know-how,” he said, adding that “the recycling economy is going to be very important” in the context of materials efficiency.
The European metals industry welcomed the launch of the alliance, saying it will help “all stakeholders to jointly tackle the challenges of sustainable raw materials supply brought by Europe’s transition away from fossil fuels”.
“It’s through partnerships and dialogue that we’ll chart the right path forward to securing a metals and minerals supply that also meets high environmental and social standards,” said Mikael Staffas, CEO of Boliden and President of trade association Eurometaux.
Environmental NGOs, for their part, voiced “deep concerns” about the Commission’s push for critical raw materials, and called for “real action” to “reduce absolute EU resource consumption” instead.
In a letter sent earlier this month, 234 civil society organisations and academics from across Europe and the world called on the EU to make sure that local communities have “the right to say no to mining projects”.
“The consequences for the environment and communities of this huge increase in metal and mineral mining is not clearly laid out – yet we know from experience and evidence that more mining leads to more biodiversity loss, more contaminated air, soil and water, lack of access to arable land and freshwater, displacement and eroded livelihoods, health impacts and more conflict.”